Separate Worlds in One Small City

Since the last post, we’ve moved up in the world. Literally.

View from the balcony of our new digs

I found a luxury furnished flat for one-third the normal price. We’re now living on the 22nd floor of the tallest building in Darwin. It feels a long way from the scrapyard and it is so lovely to have a toilet of our own, hot water, fans, an oven, a couch. We even got to see some of the Olympics on TV.

Darwin: a great place for graffiti

Although we’re no longer there, aspects of living in the scrapyard have stayed with me. There was an office worker who worked in front of our camp; he used the same toilet and so he walked passed us several times a day. I would always say, “Hello” and smile, but he never responded. He looked through me, as if I didn’t exist. This was unnerving. It made me feel like dirt. I tried to just get eye contact with the young office-worker, but he must’ve thought it disgraceful, the way we were living, camping out in a junk yard with our kids, cooking outside with the mozzies and the cane toads. I vowed to remember the feeling he gave me in future, when I see homeless people on the street, of which there are many here in Darwin. I only experienced this alienation from one person, but some people live a lifetime of invisibility—what that must do to the ego, I can only imagine.

Now we’re living at the other extreme: in a fancy two-bedroom flat with an expansive view of Darwin’s turquoise blue harbour.

On the way to school in the mornings, we bike past the scrapyard, past the same groups of Aboriginals living rough under the shade of a tree. I used to wake to the smell of burning rubbish as they lit fires in the mornings to keep warm.  This is Dinijanggama, or “heavy dew time” and it’s the coldest time of year. This morning got down to 22 C. When temperatures reached 13.8 C last month, the NT News ran it as a cover story.

We exchange morning greetings with the groups of Aboriginals as we cycle past, but not much more. Shattered glass from broken bottles lies scattered on the bike path along with bits of ash from the morning fires. There’s a Vinnie’s across the road where people can go for free coffee and toast.

This morning, after I drop K, I have rare moment to myself and pop into Sweet Brew and Co, a café on the Stuart Highway, just in front of the bike path. The breakfast offerings here (I resist) include: The Breakfast Box–House made muslie bar, Kale shooter, 100% rye toast, spiced avo, bircher pot and Celeriac puree, spiced cauliflower florets, house Za’atar, gooey fried eggs.

We’re just metres away from the bike path where a circle of men and women speak Kriol on the grass, and this air-conditioned café feels a world apart.

Racism is on the rise in the NT. A survey talked about on the ABC yesterday revealed 70% of indigenous respondents had experienced racism in the last six months in the Northern Territory. This is reminiscent of an earlier statistic I cited: 97% of kids in youth detention are Aboriginal.

With stats like this, one would expect to feel some resentment from the indigenous population of Darwin, and yet, in our five weeks here, we’ve experienced quite the opposite. There’s an Aboriginal man in a wheelchair outside of Woolies who likes to race four-year-old R on her bike, “I’ll beat you!” he says and she grins and pedals as fast as she can.

Still, one can’t help but see the segregation, which no doubt plays a role in the racism in Darwin and the rest of the NT.

The police cars here are specially designed utes fitted with a cage on the back, something a dog catcher might drive. This vehicle is not for dogs; it’s for Aboriginal people the police pick up drunk in the parks. And I thought the days of treating the first peoples of this country like animals were over.

Image result for police ute nt palmerston
Police vehicle used in Darwin and the NT

And yet Darwin—more than any other city we’ve visited—has a strong indigenous presence. On the local ABC radio station, they give news updates in Kriol (the local creole, a mixed language) Online there’s news in Warlpiri and Yolngu Matha, local Aboriginal languages.

Last month the nation celebrated NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week and at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, there were free workshops with Aboriginal artists all weekend.

We got to try our hand at all types of Aboriginal art, from water colours to dot painting to basket making.


We sat on the floor in the shade next to an aqua sea and learned how generations of women have been weaving baskets for thousands of years. One artist, a mum about my age, showed us how to strip the palm. And then she checked a text on her IPhone. She spoke English to us and her local language to her mother.  She seemed effortlessly to straddle both cultures–old and new.


I couldn’t, for the life of me, get how to strip the sand palms used for basket weaving and quickly gave up. But K hit it off with this Aboriginal artist straight away and they sat for ages stripping sand palms that were later twisted into twine and dyed, before being woven into baskets.

It was a lovely scene at the Museum (if not quite the norm)—people of one culture teaching another.

Dying the sand palm string, letting it dry in the sun, and the finished product.

Below, an amazing work of art on display at the entrance to the MAGNT, by Aboriginal artist, Michael, from Papunya, Central Australia:

This artwork was created as a representation of the journeys made by remote Aboriginal communities.  To travel across the desert, second had cars are regularly purchased and driven until they break down.  As it is often cheaper to by another second hand car than to fix the existing car, the broken down cars are usually left and become a part of the landscape. (MAGNT)

Author: sarahklenbort

I'm a Brisbane-based writer and mother of two children--one deaf and one hearing. I'm also a sessional academic at the University of Queensland, where I teach literature and creative writing. In 2016, my husband and I took the kids out of school and travelled around Australia with a camper trailer, visiting deaf schools along the way. When we found Toowong State School, it was so good, we decided to move to Queensland! We still have the trailer and take off for the bush whenever we can.

One thought on “Separate Worlds in One Small City”

  1. You can move between these worlds … and what wonderful things to be showing your children and us. I am very attracted to the idea of weaving and yet never seem to manage the practicalities. Lovely photos and plenty to think about.


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